The journals: My monthly potpourri

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At the end of each year, writers and researchers take a little break and tell what they think about the year past. I’m borrowing wholesale from the journal Science and developments that its staff ranked at the top of 2013.

Here is a partial list of the runner-up category:

  1. Solar power got a boost last year.

Photons can be thought of as waves of energy, like light and X-rays. Converting photons to electricity involves transferring the waves to electrons in a crystal. The efficiency depends on the purity of the crystal. Imperfections trap electrons. High purity silicon cells require expensive semiconductor technology. Petrovoskite is produced by a chemical process and is much less expensive.

Petrovoskite is more efficient at the high, blue, end of the spectrum.

Silicon is better at the low, red, end.

There is interest in making cells that combine the two approaches.

My comment: I accept the consensus opinion that climate change is a probable threat to the planet and future generations. That makes me biased, and I see these developments in a positive way.

  1. The year brought a surprise from space.

The meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, was about 19 meters in diameter. I estimate that’s about nine or 10 NBA players standing on top of each other.

It was big and released energy about 23 times the power of nuclear explosion at Nagasaki. Researchers conclude that such major events are three to 10 times as common as we previously thought.

Launching a spacecraft with a telescope might monitor and provide warnings. The project is looking for funding.

My comment: Congress buys weapons that the military doesn’t want. What’s wrong?

  1. Physicists found another interesting thing in outer space last year.

NASA used its Fermi gamma-ray space telescope to confirm that some cosmic rays that reach Earth were born in exploding stars, supernovae.

Particle physics helps us understand the basic question of how things happen. Particle physics played a big role in expanding our cancer treatment armamentarium.

In the NASA experiment, the proof involved the interaction of protons, positive particles, to form pi-zero mesons.

My comment: Science is for nerds. Nerd survival is critical for our future economy an our health.

If you want to learn more about that, take a physics course, or see whether contributing U-B science columnist Steve Luckstead will do an article on the subject. He studied pi mesons at Los Alamos.

  1. Other major achievements in 2013 included:

• Adequate sleep cleans out some of the toxic chemicals associated with dementia.

• Microsurgery has reached down to the level of carving out or changing bad genetic sequences. Researchers use a protein, Cas9, coupled it with RNA to alter gene sequences. Want to look it up? The process is called Crispr.

• Tracking neural pathways in brain specimens has been made much clearer with a method that replaces the fatty material around brain tissue. It replaces the fat with crystal clear jell. The images are fantastic.

• The discovery of a 1.8-million-year-old skull of an apparent human ancestor fills gaps and changes ideas. He definitely had a smaller brain and a bigger jaw than we thought.

• Stem cells were grown and differentiated into a minuscule human brain.

• A lab in Beaverton, Ore., cloned human cells. Making stem cells for research and possible repair of human tissues, without involving embryos remains hopeful. The work is preliminary but previous obstacles have been cleared.

• Voyager has moved beyond the sun’s area of influence. Some of its equipment survived and goes, where no man may ever go, outer space. But then, someone may prove me wrong.

  1. Immunotherapy for cancer has broken out of claims dominated by quacks, charlatans and a handful of believers.

According to Science, the history of immunotherapeutic medicine has been disappointing. Injecting serum from cancer survivors into patients didn’t work.

Using pooled blood to create a product called immunoaugmentative therapy appeared to create a risk for spreading AIDS and hepatitis.

I visited that clinic in the Bahamas, reviewed records and found no evidence of cures. I also participated in a trial of immunotherapeutic treatment with thymus extract.

The study was discontinued because the death rate was higher in the treated group than in controls.

The journal made cancer immunotherapy its top advance of 2013 because the staff perceived that a corner had been turned. Results are early and not yet widely available. One of the programs costs $120,000 for a course of therapy.

Current interest focuses mainly on T cells, white blood cells that protect against certain diseases. Researchers have targeted T cells against tumors. Others have found ways to block a protein that interferes with T cell function.

My comment: The work is promising, but what can society pay for an expected increase of one month or six months of survival?

I hope the research leads to better and cheaper treatments. It may not work out that way.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor and oncologist who lives in Walla Walla. A former U.S. Army Green Berets medical officer with experience in the Middle East, he also is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Suitcase,” a novel available at amazon.com and other online book retailers. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.

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